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Coupling attributional and consequential life cycle assessment: A matter of social responsibility

Brander, Matthew, Burritt, Roger L., Christ, Katherine L.
Journal of cleaner production 2019 v.215 pp. 514-521
consequential life cycle assessment, ethics, social responsibility
A long-running debate within the life cycle assessment literature concerns the appropriate uses for attributional and consequential forms of life cycle assessment. A recently published contribution to this debate suggests that social responsibility necessarily requires a consequential perspective, and that taking an attributional perspective is optional, but not necessary. The present paper critiques this suggestion by exploring two limitations with only taking a consequential perspective. First, consequential assessments are not additive, in the sense that when added they do not approximate to total aggregate environmental burdens. Second, consequential assessments are not suitable for creating an initial scope of responsibility, as the number of possible decisions available to an agent may be intractably large, and the notion of ‘role’ responsibility is not defined by specific decisions and consequences. This second limitation is derived from a previously identified parallel between attributional and consequential methods and the normative ethical theories of deontology and consequentialism. Based on the exploration of the two limitations, a coupled accounting solution is proposed which uses both consequential and attributional approaches for different but complementary purposes. The paper concludes by suggesting that although the debate on attributional versus consequential methods has occurred largely within the field of life cycle assessment, the proposed coupled accounting solution has broader applicability to other areas of social and environmental accounting.